Editorial: A vote for education

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The dream of becoming a lawyer is about to become more attainable for Massachusetts residents, if just one more hurdle can be overcome.

After approval from the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees Thursday, the long struggle to establish a public law school in Massachusetts — one of just six states in the nation that lacks one — all comes down to one vote of the state Board of Higher Education. The February leap may be the highest obstacle to clear. Five years ago, the board had the opportunity to do the right thing and establish a public law school, but caved to the more well-heeled private schools that oppose the public option in fear of competition. That competition, and the resulting check on tuition prices, which would increase access to higher education, is exactly why the Board of Higher Education must vote to establish UMass Law at Dartmouth.

There is unlikely to be a better opportunity to create a public law school as the one about to go before the board. The dean and board of Southern New England School of Law in Dartmouth have offered the school as a gift to UMass Dartmouth. SNESL would donate its building, library, cash reserves and resources, allowing UMass to open its law school without spending any money for startup costs. Instead, the university can focus its investment on achieving national accreditation, which SNESL lacks, currently preventing graduates from taking the bar exam outside Massachusetts and Connecticut.

By investing $13.8 million, UMass Dartmouth would get the law school up to American Bar Association standards, increasing instructional resources, expanding the law library and strengthening academic supports. UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack anticipates provisional accreditation by 2013, which would allow the current freshman class to take the bar exam anywhere they choose.

The last attempt to establish the school, in 2005, failed in the face of stiff opposition from private institutions and some members of the education board who questioned the finances involved, particularly when it came to preparing the school for national accreditation. Others wonder whether taxpayers will be saddled with the bill.

MacCormack answers all the critics with a sound business plan that addresses financial concerns and shows the value a public law school would bring to the UMass system and the commonwealth in general.

First of all, far from costing taxpayers money — the state contribution to public universities is minimal, covering only a fraction of personnel costs — UMass Law would be a windfall for the state, as tuition at public graduate schools is funneled into the state’s general fund. Purposely underestimating the influx of new students — planning for just 38 in the first year — MacCormack estimates generating $600,000 for the state in its first year, with an anticipated increase to more than $1 million in subsequent years. Already, SNESL has seen an increase in applications from prospective students anticipating the UMass takeover, starting the school down the path toward its goal of doubling enrollment to 550 students.

SNESL tuition and fees already covers the school’s operating costs, and the expected increase in enrollment, combined with existing equity in the school building, will help fund the university’s investment in the accreditation goal.

There’s no legitimate reason for the Board of Education not to approve this union. It is the board members’ obligation to increase access to higher education, which a public law school will certainly accomplish. Tuition at UMass Law is expected to total around $23,000 a year, just over half of what most private law schools charge. Furthermore, MacCormack has planned a fellowship program in which 25 students would be forgiven half their tuition costs if they commit to at least four years in an under-represented service field, such as family law, public defense, government, etc., areas in which many lawyers cannot afford to work when saddled with upward of $200,000 in debt upon graduating from a private institution.

Establishing a public law school achieves the dual benefit of increasing access for students and improving service to state residents in general. It is difficult to argue that Massachusetts shouldn’t have a public law school, and the chance to easily establish one will never be greater. The Board of Education must take advantage of this opportunity and vote to approve UMass Law at Dartmouth.

The Herald News